Honestly, I can’t recall my first distinct memory of life in Shimla. A host of images crowd the mind vying with each other for attention as it were. Is it cuddling up with a hot water bottle on cold December nights? Or hiding below the wild bushes on the cool and short lived summer evenings? Or picking up an Enid Blyton from Minerva Book Shop and eagerly devouring it in the idyllic surroundings? Or perhaps reluctantly trudging behind my mother near Oak Over on our way back from the Mall Road on a foggy monsoon day? Or is it waking up in winters to find white beauty all around, much in the manner of Disney’s “Frozen”? Perhaps it is of running to catch the HRTC bus to school, Tara Hall, while dreading missing it as no other means of transport were available. Maybe it is gobbling up a humongous amount of pastries and cream rolls from the vendors who regularly came by the house with their iron trunk full of pastries, rolls and breads, the mobile bakeries of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Or is it the real bakeries of those days, Trishool, Krishna on The Mall Road, that enticed the senses with their never fading smell of freshly baked bread? Or Baljees with its hot Gulab Jamuns? Park Café, with its lingering smell of coffee and pizzas came much later- of that I’m pretty sure.
All these and much more come to the mind. And as is the habit of the mind, past is always seen through rose tinted glasses, with a hint of nostalgia and melancholy. It’s been quite many years since I left Shimla as a permanent residence. Yet every time I come back, a myriad of emotions take over- nostalgia but also a strange disconnect as if the Shimla I grew up in was some place entirely different. That Shimla, like every other place has changed, is rather obvious- a fact sorely lamented by the inhabitants and visitors alike. The haphazard mushroom growth of buildings, the reckless deforestation, rapidly increasing population and traffic- all perils of modern day ideas of growth and development. Yet what troubled me was the strange emotional disconnect that I felt- as if, after having been born and brought up here, lived and breathed the Pine laden smell of the hills, I just didn’t belong here. The hills seemed to have disowned me. And me, them.
As if this existential angst wasn’t enough, I committed the mistake of going back to the place where our house, Victoria Place, was- Nigam Vihar. The entire neighbourhood was barely recognisable. Where there was nothing but wild bushes and tall trees, ugly buildings stood. Our little mountain terrains, the familiar houses with their lovely gardens, the dilapidated Victorian buildings were all gone. As for our house itself, it had been razed to the ground to make place for a parking lot. Not a hint remained of what stood there once. While moving out after over 20 years had felt like the end of an era, this was the definitive final nail in the coffin.
This was a few years ago and ever since my attitude can best be described as that of an ostrich. Completely ignoring my past, the ties that bind me to this place, just visiting like an outsider. This time, strangely, after so many years, the place seemed to reach out to me. Or was it that I was willing to open the floodgates of memories, allowing them to wash over me with their hint of both melancholy and joy? Each day spent here has been cathartic in a way that it has not been in the past- Every trip to The Mall and every walk meaningful. The hills still are the same- appalled no doubt at what we are doing to them, yet welcoming as a mother always is. It was me, in my attempt to deal with the lost past, who had shut myself to the intrinsic calm of this place, its welcoming embrace.
Victoria Place doesn’t exist. Tara Hall has changed, as has The Mall and everything else. Yet even though things change, nothing really does change and that is the beautiful poetry of life. Is it just a coincidence that only yesterday I picked up Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” from Minerva and the words that leapt at me seemed to be echoing my sentiments – “The kinship I felt suddenly for the old land……it surprised me….I thought I had forgotten about this land. But I hadn’t …..Maybe (it) hadn’t forgotten me either.” In the words of the wise Master OOgway there are no coincidences in life. May be it is time to come home and more fully than ever before.